#MeToo in the Caribbean

I’ve been thinking on and off about writing about #metoo But what more is there to be said? It’s been a watershed moment (with story after story, and the re-examination of stories previously whispered about)poy-2017-cover_vert-f1543ad0e414ef2a31d9b0e95c3d100a62eeee91-s900-c85, at once triggering and cathartic for many women who for the first time feel like they can speak some uncomfortable truths. Truth is – from street harassment to rape – most if not all women have waded through this in some shape or form at some time or other.  That means my mother, me, my nieces – likely my grandmothers, God rest their soul – have our #metoo stories. And that sucks.

The backlash has begun, inevitably. And it makes me shake my head. Obviously, the reckoning is uncomfortable but charges of witch hunt have been thrown around from the very beginning by men whom I have to assume would rather this conversation just go away. But I’m with actress America Ferrara on this.

“We’ve gone from not listening, hearing, or believing women and how are we going to skip over the whole part where women get to be heard and go straight to the redemption of the perpetrators. Can’t we live in that space where it’s okay for perpetrators to be a little bit uncomfortable with what the consequences will be.” – America in this interview/panel with Oprah

This reckoning is just since late last year, when the articles about Harvey Weinstein, especially Ronan Farrow’s in the New Yorker, had women saying metoometoometoo. Incidentally, one of the first men to express concerns about a witch hunt is Ronan’s father Woody Allen, whose daughter Dylan has long alleged childhood sexual abuse.

Already we’re saying too much? Well, I say too soon. Is there a spectrum of behaviour? Obviously.  Being catcalled in the street, even being touched inappropriately or sexual innuendo on the job is not the same as being sexually coerced or raped. But it’s all part of a culture in which men feel entitled to speak on, touch, even claim a woman’s body, a culture in which women are their bodies before they are human, a culture in which women are routinely silenced and/or shamed by men and women. That way of thinking needs to be unpacked and dismantled. And in the conversations I’ve had with myself and others around the stories coming out of #metoo there have been revelations (I’ve shared a few experiences of, not rape, but sexual inappropriateness, in conversations with my father, for instance, that I never shared before as we’ve tried to get past what has been a sticking point for him, why not say something sooner, when it happens). I think actress Evan Rachel Wood’s discussion (of rape culture, abuses of power, and the patriarchy) here is one of the more illuminating on this latter point: “You’ve kicked a hornet’s nest and you have a target on your back…(and) sometimes the act is so traumatizing or you’re so ashamed of it, or you’re so confused by it, or you’re so afraid of your perpetrators, you’re silenced”.

Within these conversations, there has been confusion and contradictions; we’re all trying to figure out the new rules of engagement, but more immediately, we’re getting it out and trying to figure out how we feel about all of it. But (speaking broadly, because #metoo has male victims as well) it begins with men listening, hearing and acknowledging women’s experiences. Hear that, Matt Damon?

I don’t have answers, but I am glad that these conversations are happening. It’s necessary conversation.

In our Caribbean societies, it’s a harder nut to crack. Some call it culture. Some cite our size and our politics – gender politics but also politics-politics. I don’t know. It is what it is but before #metoo and #timesup there were movements working to interrogate that culture. This in spite of the familiarity and fear that keeps certain predators moving in plain sight, and the ways the system – we the people, the politicians, the courts, the police, the media, the boardrooms, the classrooms etc. treat incidents of harassment, assault, abuse, and rape – our inaction, our tendency to blame/shame the victim, the pushing of poor behavior involving powerful men under the carpet, the silencing, the reality that so much of our outrage aligns along political lines (not that different from America in this moment actually). There has been movement online and on the streets.

Movements like Life in Leggings “The movement first took off when (Life in Leggings founder, Barbadian Ronelle) King took to social media to share her experience of a man trying to force her into his car after she refused his offer for a ride. The police were indifferent, so she told the story on Facebook with the hashtag #lifeinleggings. Soon, women from all over the region, including Jamaica, the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago, were sharing their own stories of sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence.” (March, 2017; telesurtv.net) Among the issues that Life in Leggings’ facebook page has drawn attention to are the mental health act in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (an issue which became topical after a former contestant on Caribbean’s Next Top Model was confined to a mental ward on a charge of abusive language), marital rape in the Bahamas, and sexual offences against minors in Guyana after an alleged serial abuser (a teacher) and the inaction of the system was exposed. #lifeinleggings

Movements like the Tambourine Army. “…a 15-year-old girl… had allegedly been raped by the church’s pastor a few weeks earlier. The 14 activists entered the church and sat in silence, but angry words broke out when they were approached by a different pastor; the confrontation culminated with him being struck in the head by a tambourine. The incident marked the beginnings of the Tambourine Army, a new organization to fight gender-based violence in Jamaica.” (March, 2017; guardian.com) ‘“We want to change the culture we have of assigning blame and shame to survivors,” says Latoya Nugent, co-founder of the Tambourine Army. “We want to place it at the feet of perpetrators and change the current narrative.”’ #tambourinearmy

In Antigua, credit has to be given to the advocacy work of several groups over the years. Groups like the Professional Organization for Women in Antigua and Barbuda (I remember their marches against the child sex ring/child sexual abuse), Women Against Rape (who made headlines for its objections to a popular soca song, Kick een she back Doh), the official body responsible for Gender Affairs (for among other activities its Orange days of activism), and Women of Antigua (stagings of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and capturing Antigua and Barbuda stories ranging from sex abuse to sex positivity in When a Woman Moans).

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That’s me in red acting in the first Antigua staging of Vagina Monologues. I call it theatrical activism. Shout out to Women of Antigua for stoking the conversation, beginning 2008.

Just last week, I spoke to an artist touching on this issue in his art, as I have. Examples in my writing include stories like the sexual assault of a reveler in Carnival Hangover, a story called Carnival Blues in the Caribbean Writer and Something Wicked in The Missing Slate that saw a character triggered by that ‘Kick’ song due to a past experience, and the story of a social worker who has her own history of sexual assault (Genevieve found in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings). Even my story of the sex worker who makes a bold move to give her daughter a different life after the men on the corner start taking notice of her in The Other Daughter is a part of this conversation, as is the fact that a character in my book Oh Gad! needs her husband’s permission to have her tubes tied at risk of her life, that a character in Dancing Nude deals with uncomfortable sexual-power dynamics on the job in part because of being an immigrant, and the fact that a main character is sexually assaulted by the husband (a pastor) in the family she lived with in The Boy from Willow Bend.

June sucked her teeth, “He shoulda think about that before he lay hand on me.”

These are all stories ripped, in some way or other, from life.

So, #metoo #timesup by another name has been a part of the conversations in the region, and with #metoo #timesup new conversations are happening, though, perhaps not enough of it, and not enough in public spaces. There needs to be more, uncomfortable as it is, because we can’t act like girls and women – and some boys and men, but especially girls and women because of gender dynamics in the culture at large – in our region don’t have reason upon reason to say #metoo

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